by Edward Bellamy

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Chapter XXVII. Hostility of a system of vested interests to improvement

"Now, Florence," said the teacher, "with your assistance we will take up the closing topic in our consideration of the economic system of our fathers--namely, its hostility to invention and improvement. It has been our painful duty to point out numerous respects in which our respected ancestors were strangely blind to the true character and effects of their economic institutions, but no instance perhaps is more striking than this. Far from seeing the necessary antagonism between private capitalism and the march of improvement which is so plain to us, they appear to have sincerely believed that their system was peculiarly favorable to the progress of invention, and that its advantage in this respect was so great as to be an important set-off to its admitted ethical defects. Here there is decidedly a broad difference in opinion, but fortunately the facts are so well authenticated that we shall have no difficulty in concluding which view is correct.

"The subject divides itself into two branches: First, the natural antagonism of the old system to economic changes; and, second, the effect of the profit principle to minimize if not wholly to nullify the benefit of such economic improvements as were able to overcome that antagonism so far as to get themselves introduced.--Now, Florence, tell us what there was about the old economic system, the system of private capitalism, which made it constitutionally opposed to changes in methods."

"It was," replied the girl, "the fact that it consisted of independent vested interests without any principle of coordination or combination, the result being that the economic welfare of every individual or group was wholly dependent upon his or its particular vested interest without regard to others or to the welfare of the whole body."

"Please bring out your meaning by comparing our modern system in the respect you speak of with private capitalism."

"Our system is a strictly integrated one--that is to say, no one has any economic interest in any part or function of the economic organization which is distinct from his interest in every other part and function. His only interest is in the greatest possible output of the whole. We have our several occupations, but only that we may work the more efficiently for the common fund. We may become very enthusiastic about our special pursuit, but as a matter of sentiment only, for our economic interests are no more dependent upon our special occupation than upon any other. We share equally in the total product, whatever it is."

"How does the integrated character of the economic system affect our attitude toward improvements or inventions of any sort in economic processes?"

"We welcome them with eagerness. Why should we not? Any improvement of this sort must necessarily redound to the advantage of every one in the nation and to every one's advantage equally. If the occupation affected by the invention happens to be our particular employment we lose nothing, though it should make that occupation wholly superfluous. We might in that case feel a little sentimental regret over the passing away of old habits, but that is all. No one's substantial interests are in any way more identified with one pursuit than another. All are in the service of the nation, and it is the business and interest of the nation to see that every one is provided with other work as soon as his former occupation becomes unnecessary to the general weal, and under no circumstances is his rate of maintenance affected. From its first production every improvement in economic processes is therefore an unalloyed blessing to all. The inventor comes bringing a gift of greater wealth or leisure in his hand for every one on earth, and it is no wonder that the people's gratitude makes his reward the most enviable to be won by a public benefactor."

"Now, Florence, tell us in what way the multitude of distinct vested interests which made up private capitalism operated to produce an antagonism toward economic inventions and improvements."


"As I have said," replied the girl, "everybody's interest was wholly confined to and bound up with the particular occupation he was engaged in. If he was a capitalist, his capital was embarked in it; if he was an artisan, his capital was the knowledge of some particular craft or part of a craft, and he depended for his livelihood on the demand for the sort of work he had learned how to do. Neither as capitalist or artisan, as employer or employee, had he any economic interest or dependence outside of or larger than his special business. Now, the effect of any new idea, invention, or discovery for economic application is to dispense more or less completely with the process formerly used in that department, and so far to destroy the economic basis of the occupations connected with that business. Under our system, as I have said, that means no loss to anybody, but simply a shifting of workers, with a net gain in wealth or leisure to all; but then it meant ruin to those involved in the change. The capitalist lost his capital, his plant, his investments more or less totally, and the workingmen lost their means of livelihood and were thrown on what you well called the cold charity of the world--a charity usually well below zero; and this loss without any rebate or compensation whatever from the public at large on account of any general benefit that might be received from the invention. It was complete. Consequently, the most beneficent of inventions was cruel as death to those who had been dependent for living or for profit on the particular occupations it affected. The capitalists grew gray from fear of discoveries which in a day might turn their costly plants to old iron fit only for the junkshop, and the nightmare of the artisan was some machine which should take bread from his children's mouths by enabling his employer to dispense with his services.

"Owing to this division of the economic field into a set of vested personal and group interests wholly without coherency or integrating idea, each standing or falling by and for itself, every step in the advance of the arts and sciences was gained only at the cost of an amount of loss and ruin to particular portions of the community such as would be wrought by a blight or pestilence. The march of invention was white with the bleaching bones of innumerable hecatombs of victims. The spinning jenny replaced the spinning wheel, and famine stalked through English villages. The railroad supplanted the stagecoach, and a thousand hill towns died while as many sprang up in the valleys, and the farmers of the East were pauperized by the new agriculture of the West. Petroleum succeeded whale-oil, and a hundred seaports withered. Coal and iron were found in the South, and the grass grew in the streets of the Northern centers of iron-making. Electricity succeeded steam, and billions of railroad property were wiped out. But what is the use of lengthening a list which might be made interminable? The rule was always the same: every important invention brought uncompensated disaster to some portion of the people. Armies of bankrupts, hosts of workers forced into vagabondage, a sea of suffering of every sort, made up the price which our ancestors paid for every step of progress.

"Afterward, when the victims had been buried or put out of the way, it was customary with our fathers to celebrate these industrial triumphs, and on such occasions a common quotation in the mouths of the orators was a line of verse to the effect that--

"Peace hath her victories not less renowned than those of war.

The orators were not wont to dwell on the fact that these victories of what they so oddly called peace were usually purchased at a cost in human life and suffering quite as great as--yes, often greater than--those of so-called war. We have all read of Tamerlane's pyramid at Damascus made of seventy thousand skulls of his victims. It may be said that if the victims of the various inventions connected with the introduction of steam had consented to contribute their skulls to a monument in honor of Stevenson or Arkwright it would dwarf Tamerlane's into insignificance. Tamerlane was a beast, and Arkwright was a genius sent to help men, yet the hideous juggle of the old-time economic system made the benefactor the cause of as much human suffering as the brutal conqueror. It was bad enough when men stoned and crucified those who came to help them, but private capitalism did them a worse outrage still in turning the gifts they brought into curses."

"And did the workers and the capitalists whose interests were threatened by the progress of invention take practical means of resisting that progress and suppressing the inventions and the inventors?"

"They did all they could in that way. If the working-men had been strong enough they would have put an absolute veto on inventions of any sort tending to diminish the demand for crude hand labor in their respective crafts. As it was, they did all it was possible for them to accomplish in that direction by trades-union dictation and mob violence; nor can any one blame the poor fellows for resisting to the utmost improvements which improved them out of the means of livelihood. A machine gun would have been scarcely more deadly if turned upon the workingmen of that day than a labor-saving machine. In those bitter times a man thrown out of the employment he had fitted himself for might about as well have been shot, and if he were not able to get any other work, as so many were not, he would have been altogether better off had he been killed in battle with the drum and fife to cheer him and the hope of a pension for his family. Only, of course, it was the system of private capitalism and not the labor-saving machine which the workingmen should have attacked, for with a rational economic system the machine would have been wholly beneficent."

"How did the capitalists resist inventions?"

"Chiefly by negative means, though much more effective ones than the mob violence which the workingmen used. The initiative in everything belonged to the capitalists. No inventor could introduce an invention, however excellent, unless he could get capitalists to take it up, and this usually they would not do unless the inventor relinquished to them most of his hopes of profit from the discovery. A much more important hindrance to the introduction of inventions resulted from the fact that those who would be interested in taking them up were those already carrying on the business the invention applied to, and their interest was in most cases to suppress an innovation which threatened to make obsolete the machinery and methods in which their capital was invested. The capitalist had to be fully assured not only that the invention was a good one in itself, but that it would be so profitable to himself personally as to make up for all the damage to his existing capital before he would touch it. When inventions wholly did away with processes which had been the basis of profit-charging it was often suicidal for the capitalist to adopt them. If they could not suppress such inventions in any other way, it was their custom to buy them up and pigeonhole them. After the Revolution there were found enough of these patents which had been bought up and pigeonholed in self-protection by the capitalists to have kept the world in novelties for ten years if nothing more had been discovered. One of the most tragical chapters in the history of the old order is made up of the difficulties, rebuffs, and lifelong disappointments which inventors had to contend with before they could get their discoveries introduced, and the frauds by which in most cases they were swindled out of the profits of them by the capitalists through whom their introduction was obtained. These stories seem, indeed, well-nigh incredible nowadays, when the nation is alert and eager to foster and encourage every stirring of the inventive spirit, and every one with any sort of new idea can command the offices of the administration without cost to safeguard his claim to priority and to furnish him all possible facilities of information, material, and appliances to perfect his conception."

"Considering," said the teacher, "that these facts as to the resistance offered by vested interests to the march of improvement must have been even more obvious to our ancestors than to us, how do you account for the belief they seem to have sincerely held that private capitalism as a system was favorable to invention?"

"Doubtless," replied the girl, "it was because they saw that whenever an invention was introduced it was under the patronage of capitalists. This was, of course, necessarily so because all economic initiative was confined to the capitalists. Our forefathers, observing that inventions when introduced at all were introduced through the machinery of private capitalism, overlooked the fact that usually it was only after exhausting its power as an obstruction to invention that capital lent itself to its advancement. They were in this respect like children who, seeing the water pouring over the edge of a dam and coming over nowhere else, should conclude that the dam was an agency for aiding the flow of the river instead of being an obstruction which let it over only when it could be kept back no longer."

* * * * *

"Our lesson," said the teacher, "relates in strictness only to the economic results of the old order, but at times the theme suggests aspects of former social conditions too important to pass without mention. We have seen how obstructive was the system of vested interests which underlaid private capitalism to the introduction of improvements and inventions in the economic field. But there was another field in which the same influence was exerted with effects really far more important and disastrous.--Tell us, Florence, something of the manner in which the vested interest system tended to resist the advance of new ideas in the field of thought, of morals, science, and religion."

"Previous to the great Revolution," the girl replied, "the highest education not being universal as with us, but limited to a small body, the members of this body, known as the learned and professional classes, necessarily became the moral and intellectual teachers and leaders of the nation. They molded the thoughts of the people, set them their standards, and through the control of their minds dominated their material interests and determined the course of civilization. No such power is now monopolized by any class, because the high level of general education would make it impossible for any class of mere men to lead the people blindly. Seeing, however, that such a power was exercised in that day and limited to so small a class, it was a most vital point that this class should be qualified to discharge so responsible a duty in a spirit of devotion to the general weal unbiased by distracting motives. But under the system of private capitalism, which made every person and group economically dependent upon and exclusively concerned in the prosperity of the occupation followed by himself and his group, this ideal was impossible of attainment. The learned class, the teachers, the preachers, writers, and professional men were only tradesmen after all, just like the shoemakers and the carpenters, and their welfare was absolutely bound up with the demand for the particular sets of ideas and doctrines they represented and the particular sorts of professional services they got their living by rendering. Each man's line of teaching or preaching was his vested interest--the means of his livelihood. That being so, the members of the learned and professional class were bound to be affected by innovations in their departments precisely as shoemakers or carpenters by inventions affecting their trades. It necessarily followed that when any new idea was suggested in religion, in medicine, in science, in economics, in sociology, and indeed in almost any field of thought, the first question which the learned body having charge of that field and making a living out of it would ask itself was not whether the idea was good and true and would tend to the general welfare, but how it would immediately and directly affect the set of doctrines, traditions, and institutions, with the prestige of which their own personal interests were identified. If it was a new religious conception that had been suggested, the clergyman considered, first of all, how it would affect his sect and his personal standing in it. If it were a new medical idea, the doctor asked first how it would affect the practice of the school he was identified with. If it was a new economic or social theory, then all those whose professional capital was their reputation as teachers in that branch questioned first how the new idea agreed with the doctrines and traditions constituting their stock in trade. Now, as any new idea, almost as a matter of course, must operate to discredit previous ideas in the same field, it followed that the economic self-interest of the learned classes would instinctively and almost invariably be opposed to reform or advance of thought in their fields.

"Being human, they were scarcely more to be blamed for involuntarily regarding new ideas in their specialties with aversion than the weaver or the brickmaker for resisting the introduction of inventions calculated to take the bread out of his mouth. And yet consider what a tremendous, almost insurmountable, obstacle to human progress was presented by the fact that the intellectual leaders of the nations and the molders of the people's thoughts, by their economic dependence upon vested interests in established ideas, were biased against progress by the strongest motives of self-interest. When we give due thought to the significance of this fact, we shall find ourselves wondering no longer at the slow rate of human advance in the past, but rather that there should have been any advance at all."

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